From The University of Cambridge (UK): “It’s time to look at the evidence”

U Cambridge bloc

From The University of Cambridge (UK)

Media enquiries:
Jacqueline Garget

Research enquiries:
Professor Bill Sutherland

Global biodiversity – humanity’s crucial life-support system – is being lost at a rate so alarming that it has been dubbed the “sixth mass extinction.” Professor Bill Sutherland is dedicated to ensuring that conservation projects really work to reverse this trend.

Professor Bill Sutherland. Credit: Lloyd Mann.

Change is afoot and, as Professor of Conservation Biology, Bill Sutherland is excited about it.

Funding for the environment is on the rise, with governments and businesses becoming increasingly aware of the need to act, and quickly, to protect our natural world so that it can protect us.

But there’s a problem: even with the best of intentions, many conservation projects fail.

The UK Government has recently committed to spending at least £3 billion to protect and restore nature and biodiversity, and change farming practices through environmental land management schemes. It also hopes to leverage up to £90 billion of private investment by 2030, to facilitate the Net Zero Strategy for a more sustainable future. And the Bezos Earth Fund has pledged to spend $10 billion by the end of the decade.

Sutherland says there’s a very real chance that much of this money – potentially billions of pounds – could be wasted because conservation projects are not based on activities that have been proven to work, but on “frequently biased” beliefs – which are often wrong.

A review of decades of expensive tree planting programmes in northern India showed they hadn’t been effective. Many mangrove restoration schemes have failed due to planting in the wrong place, or lack of community engagement. Unsuccessful conservation projects are not just a waste of time – they’re a waste of money, and a failure to protect the plants and animals that are becoming increasingly threatened across the globe.

“There’s been no feedback mechanism in conservation. In medicine, cases are reviewed and if they didn’t go well, doctors try to work out why, and are held accountable – the field has been transformed by using evidence of what works.”

Professor Bill Sutherland

Drawing on the analogy, Sutherland is spearheading a revolution in the way conservation projects are planned. His hope is that all future decision-making in conservation will be based on the best available evidence, just as it is in medicine. And that this will result in better outcomes for the nature we’re trying to protect.

The Evidence Effect: How a conservation revolution is protecting biodiversity.

“We’re losing global biodiversity at an alarming rate – it’s a real risk to society, and we need to be serious about reversing the trend,” warns Sutherland.

“The recent hikes in environmental spending are great news, but only if these enormous sums are spent on conservation projects that work.”

“There are governments and organizations who don’t check whether there’s evidence that what they’re planning to do will actually work, before they go ahead and spend the money,” he adds, “and it’s a serious problem. Meanwhile, evidence is accumulating, and being made much easier to use.”

Sutherland is dedicated to making this evidence freely available to everyone. His Conservation Evidence project is a simple concept, based on a lot of hard work.

So far, in collaboration with an international group of experts, Sutherland’s team has summarized the evidence for the effectiveness of over 3,530 conservation interventions for 23 species groups, habitats or other conservation issues. This has involved scanning over 1.6 million papers in more than 650 journals, including 320 journals in 16 non-English languages.

As well as the database of evidence, there’s an annual publication, What Works in Conservation, and subject-specific synopses of evidence.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for people to work out what to do for the best chances of protecting particular species and habitats,” says Sutherland.
“With Conservation Evidence, it takes less than a minute to look up whether something is effective, and just a few more to find an alternative intervention if it’s not.”

There are information gaps of course – as well as biases. To address this, the team are including studies published in languages other than English, which has already increased their geographic and taxonomic coverage significantly.

Users are also encouraged to test interventions with as yet little or no evidence, and new conservation approaches, and to publish their results in the Conservation Evidence Journal so the information can be used by others in planning their own projects: the resource is two-way, and this means it just keeps getting better.

Sutherland’s approach is working.

Conservation organisations are using the evidence, changing course and reporting successes.

Conservation Evidence has now had around 800,000 users, with a return rate of around 25%, and has brought together a group of ‘Evidence Champions’ who have signed commitments to use the resource in their decision-making for new projects.

“Transformational changes are vital in tackling the nature-climate crisis. We cannot afford to act on hearsay, best guesswork or opinion. Conservation Evidence provides an unrivalled signpost to what works and doesn’t work, and looking ahead we need to invest in what the evidence tells us will make a real difference.”

Professor Des Thompson, Principal Adviser, NatureScot – Scotland’s Nature Agency.

Sutherland’s team hasn’t stopped there.

They want to do everything they can to support conservationists and this includes providing the guidance and tools needed to incorporate evidence into new projects.

Their ‘Evidence-to-Decision’ tool for example, co-produced by Alec Christie – a researcher in the team – and practitioners from many conservation organisations, helps practitioners make evidence-informed decisions. It also transparently records the evidence and reasoning practitioners use – which not only helps in their project planning, but helps others to see why past decisions were made.

Another set of guidance is being created to help people better report the costs of their project. “People need to know that the approaches they take are as cost-effective as possible, but we’ve found that cost reporting is extremely poor – so it’s difficult to make informed decisions,” says Thomas White, a researcher in the team.

There’s still lots more work to do, but Sutherland is determined to succeed – because without a properly functioning natural world, the existence of the whole of humanity is at risk.

“We’re now working with many organizations who are using evidence as a central part of their planning – and practitioners are routinely checking evidence, and testing and learning from their actions,” he says, adding:
“I’m excited to be helping to drive this transformation. There’s no time to get things wrong. Evidence gives us the best possible shot at saving the natural world.”

See the full article here .


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U Cambridge Campus

The University of Cambridge (UK) [legally The Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge] is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, England. Founded in 1209 Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university. It grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford(UK) after a dispute with townsfolk. The two ancient universities share many common features and are often jointly referred to as “Oxbridge”.

Cambridge is formed from a variety of institutions which include 31 semi-autonomous constituent colleges and over 150 academic departments, faculties and other institutions organised into six schools. All the colleges are self-governing institutions within the university, each controlling its own membership and with its own internal structure and activities. All students are members of a college. Cambridge does not have a main campus and its colleges and central facilities are scattered throughout the city. Undergraduate teaching at Cambridge is organised around weekly small-group supervisions in the colleges – a feature unique to the Oxbridge system. These are complemented by classes, lectures, seminars, laboratory work and occasionally further supervisions provided by the central university faculties and departments. Postgraduate teaching is provided predominantly centrally.

Cambridge University Press a department of the university is the oldest university press in the world and currently the second largest university press in the world. Cambridge Assessment also a department of the university is one of the world’s leading examining bodies and provides assessment to over eight million learners globally every year. The university also operates eight cultural and scientific museums, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, as well as a botanic garden. Cambridge’s libraries – of which there are 116 – hold a total of around 16 million books, around nine million of which are in Cambridge University Library, a legal deposit library. The university is home to – but independent of – the Cambridge Union – the world’s oldest debating society. The university is closely linked to the development of the high-tech business cluster known as “Silicon Fe”. It is the central member of Cambridge University Health Partners, an academic health science centre based around the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

By both endowment size and consolidated assets Cambridge is the wealthiest university in the United Kingdom. In the fiscal year ending 31 July 2019, the central university – excluding colleges – had a total income of £2.192 billion of which £592.4 million was from research grants and contracts. At the end of the same financial year the central university and colleges together possessed a combined endowment of over £7.1 billion and overall consolidated net assets (excluding “immaterial” historical assets) of over £12.5 billion. It is a member of numerous associations and forms part of the ‘golden triangle’ of English universities.

Cambridge has educated many notable alumni including eminent mathematicians; scientists; politicians; lawyers; philosophers; writers; actors; monarchs and other heads of state. As of October 2020 121 Nobel laureates; 11 Fields Medalists; 7 Turing Award winners; and 14 British prime ministers have been affiliated with Cambridge as students; alumni; faculty or research staff. University alumni have won 194 Olympic medals.


By the late 12th century the Cambridge area already had a scholarly and ecclesiastical reputation due to monks from the nearby bishopric church of Ely. However it was an incident at Oxford which is most likely to have led to the establishment of the university: three Oxford scholars were hanged by the town authorities for the death of a woman without consulting the ecclesiastical authorities who would normally take precedence (and pardon the scholars) in such a case; but were at that time in conflict with King John. Fearing more violence from the townsfolk scholars from the University of Oxford started to move away to cities such as Paris; Reading; and Cambridge. Subsequently enough scholars remained in Cambridge to form the nucleus of a new university when it had become safe enough for academia to resume at Oxford. In order to claim precedence it is common for Cambridge to trace its founding to the 1231 charter from Henry III granting it the right to discipline its own members (ius non-trahi extra) and an exemption from some taxes; Oxford was not granted similar rights until 1248.

A bull in 1233 from Pope Gregory IX gave graduates from Cambridge the right to teach “everywhere in Christendom”. After Cambridge was described as a studium generale in a letter from Pope Nicholas IV in 1290 and confirmed as such in a bull by Pope John XXII in 1318 it became common for researchers from other European medieval universities to visit Cambridge to study or to give lecture courses.

Foundation of the colleges

The colleges at the University of Cambridge were originally an incidental feature of the system. No college is as old as the university itself. The colleges were endowed fellowships of scholars. There were also institutions without endowments called hostels. The hostels were gradually absorbed by the colleges over the centuries; but they have left some traces, such as the name of Garret Hostel Lane.

Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse – Cambridge’s first college in 1284. Many colleges were founded during the 14th and 15th centuries but colleges continued to be established until modern times. There was a gap of 204 years between the founding of Sidney Sussex in 1596 and that of Downing in 1800. The most recently established college is Robinson built in the late 1970s. However Homerton College only achieved full university college status in March 2010 making it the newest full college (it was previously an “Approved Society” affiliated with the university).

In medieval times many colleges were founded so that their members would pray for the souls of the founders and were often associated with chapels or abbeys. The colleges’ focus changed in 1536 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry VIII ordered the university to disband its Faculty of Canon Law and to stop teaching “scholastic philosophy”. In response, colleges changed their curricula away from canon law and towards the classics; the Bible; and mathematics.

Nearly a century later the university was at the centre of a Protestant schism. Many nobles, intellectuals and even commoners saw the ways of the Church of England as too similar to the Catholic Church and felt that it was used by the Crown to usurp the rightful powers of the counties. East Anglia was the centre of what became the Puritan movement. In Cambridge the movement was particularly strong at Emmanuel; St Catharine’s Hall; Sidney Sussex; and Christ’s College. They produced many “non-conformist” graduates who, greatly influenced by social position or preaching left for New England and especially the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the Great Migration decade of the 1630s. Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War and head of the English Commonwealth (1649–1660), attended Sidney Sussex.

Modern period

After the Cambridge University Act formalised the organisational structure of the university the study of many new subjects was introduced e.g. theology, history and modern languages. Resources necessary for new courses in the arts architecture and archaeology were donated by Viscount Fitzwilliam of Trinity College who also founded the Fitzwilliam Museum. In 1847 Prince Albert was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge after a close contest with the Earl of Powis. Albert used his position as Chancellor to campaign successfully for reformed and more modern university curricula, expanding the subjects taught beyond the traditional mathematics and classics to include modern history and the natural sciences. Between 1896 and 1902 Downing College sold part of its land to build the Downing Site with new scientific laboratories for anatomy, genetics, and Earth sciences. During the same period the New Museums Site was erected including the Cavendish Laboratory which has since moved to the West Cambridge Site and other departments for chemistry and medicine.

The University of Cambridge began to award PhD degrees in the first third of the 20th century. The first Cambridge PhD in mathematics was awarded in 1924.

In the First World War 13,878 members of the university served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching and the fees it earned came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence the university first received systematic state support in 1919 and a Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the university (but not the colleges) should receive an annual grant. Following the Second World War the university saw a rapid expansion of student numbers and available places; this was partly due to the success and popularity gained by many Cambridge scientists.